Los Angeles

Don Suggs

In The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger states, “To be a work means to set up a world,” suggesting that art is a self-reflexive linguistic construct removed from empirical reality. In his later writings, however, Heidegger came to see language as semantically liberating, rather than confining; he looked at art as the manifestation of truth’s becoming, a Dionysian force that calls the phenomenological world into existence.

Don Suggs’ recent paintings adhere to Heidegger’s early critical position, indicting mediation as an obstruction to actual experience. Suggs expresses this obfuscation of naming by means of a layered strategy of negation. Picture-postcard and tourist-eye views of the natural landscape, as well as painted renditions of official photo portraits, are partially obscured by geometric abstractions that simultaneously suggest color cue cards, national flags, and reductive nonrepresentational painting. In Red Mountain/Green Mountain, 1985–88, a holiday-brochure view of a snow-flecked peak is partially blocked by black and white triangles bordering a pyramid rendered in pale and dark green. This proprietary view of nature suggests a two-fold detachment: the distancing produced by circumscribing the world as property (the alpine vista as sublime commodity) and as abstraction (the landscape as a mere catalyst for painterly rhetoric). Even the expressive psychological charge of Van Gogh is called into question. In Garden of the Asylum, 1988, Suggs renders the St. Rémy institution in photorealist monochrome, then masks most of its detail with a post and lintel abstraction evocative of Brice Marden. The artist deconstructs Van Gogh’s painterly ethos by placing it within the same context as mechanical reproduction and geometric abstraction, implying that all painting comprises a system of arbitrary signifying frames.

Suggs works a similar ploy in “The Citizens Series,” 1987–88, in which the same black and white identity portrait is blocked out by national flags. Psychological individuation is replaced by the generic sign of national identity, so that the same figural image acts as a passive receptacle for our superficial reading. Suggs cleverly groups the flags in common color groups so that, for example, the orange, white, and green bands of the Ivory Coast can be semantically and visually rearranged into the green, white, and orange of Ireland. A simple shuffling of color cues thus produces a correspondingly complex rereading of cultural identity.

Suggs is also concerned with representational language’s ability to blur, as well as define, semantic difference. Big Communists and Big Capitalists, both 1988–89, presents contrasting portraits of Trotsky, Lenin, Mao, and Stalin on one hand, and J.P. Morgan, J.D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and William Randolph Hearst on the other. The paintings depict communist dictators as the other side of the realpolitik coin from capitalist robber barons. Suggs suggests a similar correspondence at the level of signification, whereby each head is blocked out by a similar symbol: a yellow star on a red ground for the communists, a white star on a blue ground for the capitalists. As both ideology and the political economy of signs undergo similar mutation toward homogeneity, semantic truth becomes increasingly difficult to determine.

The problem with Suggs’ approach is that, as in early Heidegger, he seems determined to treat language as an ontological cul-de-sac and painting itself as a creative dead end. If so, one can ask the obvious question, “Why paint?” Our view of nature is by its very definition a mediation, an act of propriety. It is how we choose to use that propriety, not the condition of property itself, that is at issue. Perhaps Suggs will follow Heidegger’s lead and make the leap into seeing language not as an impasse, but as a source of creative freedom, in which meaning is brought into being through the very act of becoming.

Colin Gardner